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Good Farmer, Good Neighbor

TAKILMA — Carl Wilson wishes people could just get along.

During a tour Wednesday of East Fork Cultivars marijuana farm in Takilma, south of Cave Junction, the Oregon House Republican from Grants Pass spoke with the owners about conflicts across Josephine County between growers and neighbors. The county's planning department has fielded hundreds of complaints about marijuana operations.

"It's neighbor-to-neighbor, human being issues," Wilson said.

East Fork CEO Mason Walker replied that mediation and education might be able to help calm the uproar. Echoing comments supported by county officials, he said it is mostly medical marijuana farmers and illegal growers, not tightly regulated recreational farmers like himself, who are to blame.

"The bad actors are largely not licensed recreational farms," Walker said. "We're frustrated by it."

Lots of folks are frustrated. The county has over 3,000 medical marijuana grow sites, second only to Jackson County in Oregon.

Wilson's question about neighborhood peace goes to the central impetus behind a proposed ban on new marijuana farms in the county's rural residential zones. The county Board of Commissioners is set to hold a public hearing on the ban at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Basker Auditorium, 604 N.W. Sixth St. A second hearing is set for Oct. 4.

Despite his concerns, Wilson feels that the ban is not the way to go, at least not yet. On Tuesday, he sent a letter to commissioners asking them to hold off and give new state laws regulating the marijuana industry a chance to take effect.

New state laws include a mandate that medical marijuana farmers growing 13 or more marijuana plants register for oversight by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

 

"I know the board faces pressure to do something," Wilson wrote. "I would simply encourage caution. There is an absolute whirlwind of change already occurring and about to occur in the entire sector. I feel that a number of the proposed changes to the planning code are premature at best."

Walker agreed.

"They are feeling the political pressure," he said. "It's a big mistake."

In particular, Walker didn't like a provision calling for annual county inspections of marijuana farms, including a clause allowing a grower's permit to be revoked or not even issued in the first place if inspectors find code violations.

The county already doesn't have enough code officers to keep up. Currently, the county has about 700 open code violation cases, which may or may not involve marijuana farms.

The county's planning director, Julie Schmelzer, has said she would like to hire an additional code enforcement officer and that her department would work with property owners on any code violations.

She has also made it clear, however, that she envisions the threat to not issue or renew a permit as a powerful tool for the county to help cure a plethora of violations from Wolf Creek to Williams, particularly those threatening health and safety.

During his tour of the farm, Wilson heard about the farm's operations, including the fact that it employs 11 people full time, each earning a minimum of $40,000 a year. He heard about the quality of the product grown there, including a variety of marijuana high in CBD compounds, which are viewed as healthful. Walker talked about organic farming practices used there. He said the farm sells to 15 processors and that its products are sold in 140 stores.

Walker said finished product was selling for about $750 a pound, and that per-plant yields ranged from 2 to 8 pounds. As he spoke, hundreds of plants were within view.

The grow site was maybe the size of a football field and was enclosed by wire fencing, with several security cameras in place. The smell wasn't overpowering.

East Fork Cultivars is owned by five people, including Walker, Aaron Howard and Jo Perkins, who accompanied Wilson on his tour.

Howard said he invited Wilson as a way of "reaching out," while Wilson said it was important for him to get out of the office and into the field. As a member of state legislative committee that helped draft rules on recreational marijuana, he now knows a lot more about the subject than he did a few years ago.

Howard, who started out as a medical marijuana farmer to benefit a brother who suffered from seizures, is big on spreading the good word about the high quality of Southern Oregon marijuana. East Fork Cultivars is a member of the newly formed Craft Cannabis Alliance.

Perkins said the marijuana industry can benefit Josephine County immensely. It already seems to have benefitted not only farm owners and employees, but tradesmen and service providers who are helping to literally build the industry. The burgeoning industry also means business for retailers.

Even as Perkins spoke, workmen were nearby on a farm building, constructing a mahogany deck. New electrical service was going in, too — all by permit.

"It could be something that creates opportunity," he said.

Asked for his advice, Wilson urged the owners — there's five of them, total — to become part of the mainstream community.

"That kills suspicion when you become part of things," he said. "There's so much suspicion out there."

Wilson also complimented the East Fork operation.

"I've seen the way it ought to be done and they're doing it right," he said.

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Reach reporter Shaun Hall at 541-474-3722 or shall@thedailycourier.com.

 

A ban on new marijuana farms?

WHAT: The Josephine County Board of Commissioners is due to hold the first of two public hearings on a proposal to ban new marijuana farms in the county's rural residential zones.

WHEN: 9 a.m. Wednesday. The second hearing is Oct. 4.

WHERE: Basker Auditorium, 604 N.W. Sixth St.

WHY: Commissioners are reacting to more than 1,000 marijuana-related land use complaints received over the last year. Voters in May, by a 2-1 margin, said they didn't want commercial marijuana farms in rural residential zones. The vote was advisory.

MORE INFORMATION: The proposed ban and related regulations are posted at co.josephine.or.us.